The Teaching Museum

Norfolk Museums Service Traineeship


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Sharing a Passion: Ted Ellis

Each week we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees.

Today we see John Holdaway, trainee with the Natural History section.

Back in the summer of 2016, I was kindly asked by Time & Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth, to present a talk as part of their excellent Friday talks programme. I was given the date of 3rd March 2017, which at the time seemed a long way off, but as I write this, it’s only a few weeks away!

Deciding on a subject to talk about was a hard choice. Over the past 10 months, I’ve had the privilege to work with a collection that holds over a million objects, ranging in ages from decades to well over 100 million years old. But narrowing it down to one single object to talk about for 60 minutes felt a hugely daunting task. After pondering on choices for a while, I stumbled upon the idea of not actually presenting a talk on an object, but instead, on a person. And a hugely influential figure, personality and visionary within the history of the Natural History department here at Norfolk Museums Service, was Ted Ellis.

Ted was employed by Norwich Castle Museum as ‘Natural History Assistant’ in 1928 at the age of 19, and presented at his interview a collection of his own ‘Nature Notebooks’ that he had kept from a young age. These had captured, in amazing detail, what he had observed on his many nature walks around Great Yarmouth and many other parts of Norfolk. We are very lucky to have many of these notebooks in the collection. Some of the colourful drawings of birds, wildlife and botany are truly wonderful, and show a young man with a real passion for nature, doing what he loved.

Ted Ellis in is natural habitat

Ted Ellis in his natural habitat

 

One of Ted's many 'Nature Notebooks'

One of Ted’s many ‘Nature Notebooks’

 

One of Ted's many 'Nature Notebooks'

Amazing detail of Ted’s ‘Nature Notebooks’

In time, Ted became ‘Keeper of Natural History’, and one of his many lasting legacies here at Norwich Castle Museum, is of course, the ‘Ted Ellis Norfolk Room’. In America during the 1930s, old-style cases which contained row-upon-row of taxidermy were starting to be replaced by a new type of 3D vista, where nature that would usually occur together in the wild, was depicted in a natural-looking setting. Ted was the driving force behind designing and building Norwich Castle’s very-own set of dioramas, regarded at the time as the best in the world, and still well-respected to this day due to their attention to detail and accuracy.

Each scene depicts a different part of Norfolk, and contains birds, botany and landscapes unique to that area. Being a Breckland boy living in Norwich, it always warms my heart seeing the Stone Curlews, meres, gorse, sandy heaths, endless skies, and the belts of twisted Scots Pines that the Breckland landscape is so famous for.

The Breckland landscape in the Ted Ellis Norfolk Room at Norwich Castle Museum

The Breckland landscape in the Ted Ellis Norfolk Room at Norwich Castle Museum

 

A young Ted Ellis, and me

A young Ted Ellis, and me

Although Ted entered the professional museum world under the instruction and guidance of late Victorian and Edwardian curators, he was part of the new breed of museum professionals, tasked with evolving the museum world from their Victorian ‘curiosity’ obsessions, towards museums representing their local communities.

In this way, I can relate this to my own introduction into the world of museums. I spent 15 years working in the logistics sector, a role I never really enjoyed. I’d always had a passion for history and heritage, and to take the big jump into the museum world was never money or job-security motivated, it was purely down to wanting to share my passion with as many people as I could, and to make new memories, just as my trips to museums as a child did for me. Obviously, the heritage sector is ever changing, and through my traineeship, I have been able to draw on the experience and knowledge on some of the most forward-thinking and experienced characters within the sector. It is nearly time for me to push on with what I have learnt and to make my own mark, just as Ted Ellis did during his time at the museum. He learnt from the best at the time, and used that to springboard his own ideas. A testament to his passion and skill is that his work, including the dioramas, are still admired over 80 years since their creation.

Ted was a man who wanted to share his passion with as many people as possible, and I’ve also been able to do that over the last 10 months. And long may it continue, wherever my next chapter may take me.

If you’d like to hear more about Ted’s time at Norwich Castle Museum, see details about my talk through this link: https://www.facebook.com/events/327175364300893/?active_tab=about

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Preparing a Cockle Rake for the Freezer… #OnlyInMuseums

Each month we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees. Today we see Imy Clarke, Curatorial trainee at Ancient House and Lynn Museum.

Six months into the traineeship and it’s hard to believe how much I have learnt! Time has flown by and we’ve hit the halfway point (eek)! With the months whizzing on I’ve taken the opportunity to reflect on a few of the best and most challenging things I’ve done over the first half of my year as Curatorial Teaching Museum Trainee.

Dressing up + being in costume likes to work it's way into trainee life! Myself and fellow trainees enjoying the hat selection at Ancient House.

Myself and fellow trainees enjoying the hat selection at Ancient House!

Having had no prior experience in the museum industry, the first few months were a steep learning curve! I was flung straight into helping with all sorts of exciting activities and projects whilst getting to know my new colleagues and places of work.

One of the first major projects I was lucky enough to be involved with was East Meets West, a three-day international conference exploring the relationship between obsidian and flint. ‘What is obsidian?’ I hear you ask… or maybe that was just me back in May! – Why it’s a ruddy-exciting black volcanic rock used to make tools during the Neolithic period, that’s what! East Meets West included an academic conference, a family fun day and a schools day, so as you can imagine the project took lots of coordinating! It also presented me with numerous challenges. One particularly memorable example being an interview with Radio Suffolk, which is sadly no longer available online for me to share with you (phew!).

Obsidian knapping workshop at East Meets West Family Fun Day.

Obsidian knapping workshop at East Meets West Family Fun Day.

One of my favourite roles at both Lynn Museum and Ancient House is working with our volunteer teams. I quickly learnt when starting the traineeship, that many museums simply could not continue if it wasn’t for the hard work of their dedicated volunteers. At Lynn Museum I have had the pleasure of working with some fantastic people, sorting through boxes of fascinating museum objects! It has been amazing to work behind the scenes, handling and caring for such interesting objects. During my first session at the store I ended up preparing a cockle rake for the freezer as it was showing signs of pest infestation… something I can’t say I had ever seen myself doing.

…And so began the weird and wonderful list of activities where I found myself saying ‘only in museums!’ (Regretfully I have no photo evidence of said cockle rake… I will leave your minds to ponder…)

Any excuse to don a tyvek suit! Conservation cleaning at Gressenhall collections store.

Over the last few months I have thoroughly enjoyed co-curating Little Lives: Snapshots of Childhood 1800 to the Present Day with the wonderful Lynn Museum team! Working on this exhibition has given me invaluable experience in selecting and preparing objects, writing text panels, curating displays and more! Using childhood objects from the museum collections alongside photographs and paintings, Little Lives explores the changing experiences of childhood across the last two centuries. Until working on Little Lives I had no idea of the processes and forward planning involved in creating a museum exhibition.

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Installing mourning brooches for Little Lives exhibition.

My day-to-day role on the traineeship has been and continues to be incredibly varied. One moment I’ll be creating museum trails or co-curating an online exhibition (watch this space) and the next I’ll be dressed up in 1920s costume or as a Tudor lady at an outreach event! I have been given so many opportunities during my first six months and I can’t thank the supportive teams I work with enough!

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Strike a pose! Dayna and Myself dressed in 1920s costume for event at Lynn Museum.

I am looking forward to seeing what my remaining few months will hold and I’m sure that when it comes to writing my next blog entry I will have plenty more of those #OnlyInMuseum moments to share!

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A tour around the costume and textiles stores. Me in replica crinoline.


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Bugs, Skulls & toilets!?

Each week we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees. Today we see John Holdaway, trainee with the Natural History section.

Wow! The first four months of the Teaching Museum traineeship have absolutely whizzed by! (And yes, as you will soon discover, I am the only male on this year’s traineeship!). It really only feels like yesterday when the 2016 trainees sat down for our first day’s induction, and for me, hopping straight on a train afterwards to head for Derby to attend the NatSCA (Natural Sciences Collections Association) conference. This was also the first official meeting with my supervisor, Senior Curator of Natural History for NMS, David Waterhouse. I can’t remember what I first found more daunting as I arrived, either meeting my new boss, or having to socialise (in a pub) with some of the most highly regarded Natural History curators in the UK! But once I arrived, I found them to be very approachable (albeit with a curious fascination with collecting animal dung!). It was a great event, both in learning valuable information that would help me over the next year, but also having an early chance to network with some major players in the museum sector.

Me, auditioning for a role in 'The Fly 3'

Me, auditioning for a role in ‘The Fly 3’

 

My fellow 2016 trainees and me

               My fellow 2016 trainees and me

During the month of June, I was involved in two public events held at Norwich Castle by the Natural History section. The first of these was to celebrate Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s 90th anniversary, which involved curating a temporary display of different objects related to naturalists during the 1920s, the same time as the founding of the trust. One of the star objects in our display was a 1926 nature diary by former keeper of Natural History here at the Castle/East Anglian nature TV celebrity, Ted Ellis. When Ted applied for the position of ‘Natural History Assistant’ at the Castle in 1928 (at the age of 19), he brought along a selection of his nature dairies to the job interview as proof of his love of nature, and it worked! So it is very likely that 1926 copy we had on display was used by Ted at that interview! It was great to be able to explain this to our visitors.For me, that is the very essence of what working in a museum and having a passion for history is all about. Being able to connect objects with people, and discovering a story that can be amazing, sad or funny, or even all three at the same time.

 

The Natural History display cases for Norfolk Wildlife Trust 90th anniversary event

The Natural History display cases for Norfolk Wildlife Trust 90th anniversary event

The second public event was a ‘How the Horse Became’ handling session, to coincide with British Art Show 8’s ‘History Train’ event, which saw heavy-horses delivering the artwork to the Castle. Our display centred on the evolution of the Horse, from its relatively unknown evolutionary links to Hippos, how they are able to generate such speed, right up to why Horse-chestnuts gained their name. My favourite part of this display was the real Hippopotamus skull, and the excitement on visitor’s faces when asked if they could identify which animal it was.

A large part of me deciding to try and forge a career in the museum sector was down to the memories I developed from visits to museums when I was a child (especially Ancient House Museum in Thetford). It was amazing to see how excited our younger visitors became when faced with the huge Hippo. I truly hope that memories were formed that day which will inspire a future generation of museum goers, or even future museum professionals!

The Hippopotamus skull used in our ‘How the Horse Became’ event at Norwich Castle

                          The Hippopotamus skull used in our ‘How the Horse Became’ event at Norwich Castle

 

To sum up my first third of the traineeship in a paragraph is a difficult task. The ‘Understanding Museums’ training really did open my eyes to how many different factors come in to play when dealing with museum work. Even though it didn’t really feel like I was being schooled at any time, my knowledge of how museums work has expanded on a huge magnitude. My days are so varied, which makes the time absolutely fly by. I’ve been well and truly adopted into the Natural History section, and feel that any idea I have, great or small, is always considered and never muted. I could have written all day about the different experiences I have had over the last few months.

I’m sure that when I come to write my next blog entry, my museum knowledge will have stepped up another level.

And, if it all goes wrong, I could cut out another career path with a certain skill I’ve recently acquired… (See photo below)

Me, cleaning a Victorian toilet-bowl at Gressenhall

Me, cleaning a Victorian toilet-bowl at Gressenhall

 


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Voice from a Workhouse

Each week we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees.  Today we see Lawrence, trainee within the Collections Team at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse.  https://nmsteachingmuseum.wordpress.com

I shall start by echoing my fellow trainees sentiments in stating that these past few months in my role as the collections management trainee have been exciting, stimulating, educational and above all rewarding. It’s difficult to express how quickly it feels time is disappearing as I try to take in more and more information and develop my skills in the museum sector. To that end I shall continue by giving a brief glimpse into my working world at Gressenhall.

One of the first tasks I was involved in was moving this workhouse coffin to conservation.

My major task since starting here towards the end of April has been to find and digitise archived photographs charting the history of Gressenhall for the Heritage Lottery Funded ‘Voices from the Workhouse’ project. This process has been hugely rewarding for me as I have found out so much about the Workhouse’s history, including things I would never have expected (Christmas dinner for inmates every year bar one), but also it was a great introduction to the collections here.

Staff from the workhouse in the 1920s

Now that the digitisation is largely finished I have recently been focussing on auditing both the Collections Gallery and Engineering Gallery, both of which are second phase stages of the Voices project. Auditing these galleries has allowed me to get more hands on with a diverse collection of objects, get to grips with the cataloguing system and put to work some of the skills I have attained from our weekly training sessions.

The largest item to be digitised by far is this map of the Mitford and Launditch hundred.

The training sessions have been a real highlight of the traineeship so far, I’ve learnt practical new skills which will be useful not only this year but also in my future career, they have given a taste of many different aspects of the museum and wider heritage world and have opened my eyes to just what it takes to be a successful museum service in an ever changing cultural climate.

Change is very much apparent at Gressenhall, it is currently quite empty which is a rare chance to see the fabric of the building, but more and more artefacts are making their way in ready for the ‘Voices’ opening next March. To that end we’ll be testing aspects of the project this summer so if you fancy a sneak peak, there aren’t many places more enjoyable to spend a sunny day. Don’t forget to wish our old mannequins goodbye when you next visit. See you at Gressenhall soon.

My very best attempt at being a mannequin.


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Norwich Castle Museum: a snooper’s paradise!

Each week we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees.  Today we see Dan, trainee within the Archaeology Department at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery.  https://nmsteachingmuseum.wordpress.com/

Spring has turned into summer in the blink of an eye for this trainee! Starting a new job and embarking on the teaching museum training programme has certainly kept all of us trainees very busy. It’s great to see all of us steadily developing as museum professionals on the scheme. Here’s my personal insight into the programme so far from the Archaeology Department…

Atop Norwich Castle battlements with Meg, Morgan and Sue.

I must say I’ve had a highly interesting and rewarding time to date – long may it continue! I am very privileged to be here. My colleagues have been incredibly welcoming and supportive and the department is bustling with activity, welcoming students, volunteers, academics and members of the public to view and catalogue all sorts of amazing things from socketed Bronze Age axe heads to animal and human remains.

I have been fortunate enough to already involve myself in a number of diverse projects and activities, including:

  • arranging the touring display of the Rudham Dirk, a ceremonial Bronze Age dagger, around regional museums
  • writing a funding application for the acquisition of gold coins of the Iceni, a Celtic tribe perhaps best known for their warrior queen Boadicea
  • attending the Dying Matters event with Anglo-Saxon grave goods at The Forum in Norwich alongside fellow teaching museum trainees
  • familiarising myself with and contributing to the proposed Norwich Castle keep redevelopment and redisplay project

Gold ‘Norfolk Wolf’ coin of the Iceni.

Dying Matters with fellow trainees, and a Stormtrooper!?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The latter is a truly exciting project and again, I am thrilled to be involved in such an important undertaking which will have a lasting impact on the future of the museum. Part of my work has seen me helping research, document and catalogue papers and relating to the Victorian conversion of Norwich Castle from a prison to a museum by the notable local architect Edward Boardman & Son in the 1890s. Recently, I accompanied a photographer around the building to document the Boardman architecture, fixtures and fittings, including about an hour spent in a ladies toilet – prior to opening I must add!

Photographer snapping an old window shutter in Norwich Castle Museum.

I’ve had opportunities to snoop around other areas of the museum not normally accessible. Being a nosey sort, I love museum stores, nooks and crannies, and the dark places where arachnids and other creepy crawlies dwell. I’ve been fortunate enough to be guided around the Fighting Gallery of the castle keep and see ancient graffiti up close, which is gradually being documented by my manager Dr Tim Pestell. There is certainly plenty more to be discovered throughout the museum which I’m keen to see over the coming months.

A bit of fun with a replica helmet from the Learning Department’s handling collection.

Before I go, I should mention the training which has really exceeded expectations. Trips to the Norfolk Record Office and attending courses meant to give us trainees a broader understanding of museums have been particular highlights. I’m excited by the other valuable skills and experiences we’ll acquire and encounter. I’m convinced that this is without doubt the best thing for me in my early career in the museum sector.